One of the unexpected outcomes of this wholly unexpected pandemic is the way it has fundamentally changed how we eat and share food. The pandemic has sparked a renewed interest in cooking and has changed the way restaurants, grocery stores, and community farms operate. Some of us are fortunate to have continued, uninterrupted access to fresh food. Others are struggling with food insecurity during a time when a lot of the systems in place to feed hungry New Yorkers have been disrupted. Still others are working in urban farms and in the food service industries that are trying to adapt to a new reality while keeping workers safe.
The pandemic, and the lockdown on businesses and resources that resulted from it, has highlighted the unsustainability of the buy-rather-than-make mentality of the masses. It has also shone a light on the many New Yorkers who continue to live by an older standard, one that already includes many of the pandemic suggested shopping tips. Communities of color need no guidance on how to shop in bulk or stretch home cooked meals. Many of them continue practices from ancestral homes in the Caribbean or abroad while some maintain the roots of southern cuisine and food storage.
This turn towards sustainability is reflected in the number of Black people reclaiming their connection to the land, looking backward towards the food justice lessons learned during the Black Power movement of the 1960s. During this time, the Black Panthers and other activist groups emphasized the importance of self-determined food systems and land rights. The ability to eat is the ability to live, so the Black Panthers prioritized providing for the most vulnerable and valuable with their revolutionary school lunch program.
First you have free breakfasts, then you have free medical care, then you have free bus rides, and soon you have FREEDOM! -Fred Hampton, Deputy Chairman, Black Panther Party, Illinois
It is impossible to disentangle food systems from systems of oppression—colonialism, slavery, and the exploitation of migrant workers, which is why conversations about food justice are multifaceted, global, and include discussions of issues like land reparations and indigenous sovereignty. Back in the 1970s, BIPOC activists advocated for boycotts of large agriculture conglomerates like Del Monte to expose how these companies profited from Apartheid in South Africa.
Indigenous communities across America are still fighting for stolen land and calling for decolonization; Black residents in Flint, Michigan are fighting for safe drinking water; Black and Latinx families in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx are demonstrating against environmental racism; migrant farmworkers and low-waged laborers in the meat processing industry are fighting for safe working conditions. We see these issues of inequity and resistance at work all over the country and here in New York, where communities of color are still likely to live in areas with more air pollution, less green space, and less access to healthy food.
This harsh reality has resulted in a number of organizers dedicated to teaching their communities how to grow their own food at home. Introducing aquaponics, hydroponics and microgreens to city dwellers makes it possible for anyone with a few feet of space to start an urban garden. There are farmers working on a larger scale encouraging BIPOC to make a deeper commitment to land ownership and self determination by sharing their own experience with reclaiming land and the skills to make it fruitful.
Through city organizations like Green Thumb, local chefs and farmers are hosting workshops at community gardens and community centers. They have adapted to the demands of the pandemic by moving the remainder of this year’s educational offerings online. Larger operations like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and Soul Fire Farm in Troy, NY provide educational opportunities that help communities build new relationships to the land and reimagine food systems. Recent updates to their infrastructure have made it possible to expand and increase their online presence through Instagram and YouTube and has introduced them to a wider audience.
There’s even a community farming initiative at CUNY, housed on the Kingsborough Community College campus in south Brooklyn. The KCC Urban Farm is a space for students and volunteers to learn about urban farming and “explore their roles in local and global food systems.” Fresh produce harvested from the farm is used in classrooms and distributed for free to students and families in need.
Check out the resources below from the City Tech Library and beyond to learn more about the food justice movement and the BIPOC communities from Puerto Rico to New York to Iowa who are leading the way.